March 31, 1998
by Chuck Miller
Superheroes work best in the medium which spawned them, comic books, but in the hands of competent writers, they can also work as straight prose (I know, comic books are not written in verse, but I can't think of any other way to point out the distinction). After all, the forerunners of the modern superhero, Doc Savage, the Shadow, even Tarzan of the Apes, originally appeared in the early decades of this century in cheap novels or pulp magazines. I'll admit, none of it was exactly Moby Dick, and I'll also admit that I haven't been able to stomach a Doc Savage novel since I was about 17, but, in their time and place, they were a heck of a lot of fun. They never pretended to be great literature, and the writers were self-admitted hacks. Walter Gibson, under the pen name Maxwell Grant, churned out almost 200 Shadow adventures, one per month for over 15 years, racking up a word count that made Charles Dickens look like a slacker. Adventure characters seem to thrive in their own element and to wither in unfamiliar territory. Countless comic book adaptations of Doc Savage and the Shadow have been attempted over the years and all have failed to take hold. Perhaps this is because these characters aren't visually interesting enough to work in a medium that is mostly pictures. Capes and tights work better on the four-color page, while the mysterious Shadow is better left to the reader's own imagination.
Be that as it may, as long as there's a chance to sell a character to someone who doesn't ordinarily buy comics (or a chance to get a little more of the comic-buyers money), the bastard child that is superhero fiction will continue to exist, if not flourish. It started out with the Big Little Books of the 30s and 40s and the occasional text pages in the backs of comics (which I and everyone I ever knew always skipped over), and has developed into a legitimate if small subgenre in a book market which is mostly glutted with trash. Superhero novels are trash, and I'm not even sure they are what Harlan Ellison calls "elegant trash." They are, as I say, an awkward bastard child whom nobody really loves, and nothing truly memorable has ever been done in the genre. They are about as noteworthy as romance novels or UFO abduction books.
All of which is very pompous of me, considering the fact that I have a whole shelf of them sitting just to my left as I type this. I'm not only playing at being an intellectual snob, I'm a hypocrite to boot. If you can stand to listen to me a little longer, I'll tell you about some of the stuff on the shelf...
Marvel, with their penchant for pumping money and effort into almost anything but actual comic books, has the largest and best-promoted line of this stuff. They do hardbacks and paperbacks. The paperbacks are worth buying for an evening's entertainment, but I'd just like to get a look at anyone who would be willing to pay $22.95 for one of the hardbacks. Some are good, some are bad. Here are a few I feel safe in recommending: Diane Duane's Spider-Man trilogy (The Venom Factor, The Lizard Sanction and The Octopus Agenda) is not bad. The action is pretty gripping, but the dialog between Peter Parker and his wife Mary Jane is too sappy to describe (this is a problem in most of the books); What Savage Beast, a Hulk adventure by comic book whiz and "Star Trek" novelist Peter David, is quite good, and would have been the best of the lot if it hadn't been edged out by another Hulk book, Abominations by Jason Henderson. This one comes closer than anything I've read to transcending the genre and becoming a good book all its own. And that's about it. The rest of them, you buy at your own risk.
DC only puts out these things once in awhile. A few years ago, they came out with novelizations of some of their more successful comic book storylines, The Death and Life of Superman and Batman: Knightfall. These were okay, but were about as necessary as a movie novelization and every bit as memorable, which is to say hardly at all. The original hardback printings are currently available on remainder tables everywhere for five or six bucks and are more or less worth it. There is one and only one which I think every good comic fan should have on his or her shelf, and that is Elliot S. Maggin's novelization of Kingdom Come (you'll notice I avoided putting words like "the wildly successful" or "the 1996 megahit" or "the totally fab" before the title; I'm learning restraint). This is brand new and not available in paperback, but damn it all, I say buy it. Pay full price. Yes, this book is a bargain at $20. Why? Well, for one thing, Maggin is a pretty good writer. He wrote comic books for years, and did a couple of pretty good Superman novels in the 70s. His writing works. It "has legs." Not only that, but it provides a wealth of background and explanatory material that there wasn't enough room in the totally fab 1996 megahit (oops!) to go into. People like me, who never bought those damn trading cards, will finally find out the names of some of the characters who appear in one or two panels, which Green Lantern and which Flash it is in Superman's new Justice League, and more, more more! And, as if that weren't enough, it features four brand new paintings and a bunch of pen-and-ink drawings by the magnificent, fabulous and wonderful Alex Ross (I'm sorry, but I am physically unable to type his name without piling a bunch of gushing adjectives in front of it; whenever I think of him I turn as giddy as a schoolgirl listening to Hanson). Hell, I'd have paid $40 for this.
Many years ago, in a book called The Seduction of the Innocent, Dr. Frederic Wertham warned us about the dangers of comic books. Not only were they a major cause of juvenile delinquency in the early 50s, they also ruined one's taste for good literature, causing one to develop a fondness for "low-type" material.
I am living proof of the sad truth of Dr. Wertham's words. I have a good background in literature, but I don't care any more. I'd rather read Superman than The Great Gatsby, and while The Brothers Karamazov sits moldering on my shelf, untouched, my Justice League of America trade paperbacks are worn out from overuse. A college education, down the drain. I shoulda listened to ya, Dr. Wertham! It's way too late now.